I started my research on Facebook. More specifically, my research is on a collection of individual pages on Facebook. I chose Facebook because I think it gives people, specifically adolescents/young adults, the ability to interact together and form identity groups and alliances. It is an affinity space used by people of all age groups, but specifically by young people. While Facebook is a fairly large virtual space (1.19 billion active users in 2013), it creates certain affinity spaces within its boundaries by allowing individuals to group themselves together in specific ways. Facebook also gives adolescents the ability to meet virtually outside of other face to face activities, such as school. Certainly some people use the site, and other social networking sites (SNS) to meet others who are not in the same area, but this particular research focuses only on individuals who interact within their normal face to face social groups and then move those interactions online. Due to the informal nature of the site, usually the language used is quite informal; however, that can change depending on one’s audience.
The participants in this group are teenage girls between the ages of 16 and 18 years old. There is one boy who participates in one conversation, but his comments will not take a large role in my research. They all live in a small town (Palmer, Alaska—approximate population 5900 in 2010), and they attend the same high school. All of the participants are friends, move in the same social circles, and most are members of the same extracurricular activities, such as band and choir. All of the individuals in the group are friends outside of school, and they continue the conversations they started at school on Facebook, or start new conversations online that usually apply to things from school or their other shared activities. I chose this particular cohort because I thought it would yield a large amount of data that I could sift through to find exactly what I thought was important. The problem thus far has been that the group of adolescents I am studying are not active Facebook users; therefore, I had a difficult time finding a large amount of data. However, the data I did recover was sufficient enough to yield the necessary results for this particular project. Due to the age range of the group, I deleted the hyperlinks to individual Facebook accounts and took out complete names and added initials. This practice allows me to share the data I collected without causing privacy issues with any of the participants.
One participant is my niece (noted as MS in my data sets) and the others are her friends. That being said, I play an interesting role. I am an active Facebook user, so I see the activities in which MS participates. I am not friends with her friends, so I am only privy to the conversations in which she is included and among those, only the ones that are public. I rarely post anything on MS’ wall or comment much on her posts, so I play the role of observer for the most part rather than active participant within the group. I am significantly older than all of the participants and I feared that if I joined in the conversation I would place myself at a disadvantage and cause the other participants to stop engaging in the site when I was present. For that reason, I continue to do my research as an outlier of the group and just observe. At this time I have not had an issue with not being able to access information because of privacy issues.
My problem has been a lack of data. Currently I have collected two main data sets. The first was a meme on which MS was tagged so it appeared on her wall. Then a conversation ensued about the meme and the upcoming school year; this conversation included five participants who posted 25 comments. The second data set was a video that was posted on MS’ wall and included far more participants, 43 comments and 89 likes. While MS was tagged in the video post, she was not an active participant. The second data set yielded more relevant information and that helped me to narrow my research. I studied the specific language use of the adolescent girls and how that language helps to create their online identity, and how gender is part of the online identity they construct. Even more so importantly, I determine how adolescent girls change their use of language depending upon the audience with which they are interacting. The first data set allowed me to see how the group interacts with one another while the second data set showed me how some of the girls interact when adults, and more specifically teachers, are present in the conversation. The second data set is larger and includes more results, but it also includes many people who were not part of the first data set.
I analyzed my data in a broad sense in my first data set. I looked at the number of specific occurrences of typographical anomalies, different and specific uses of a particular vernacular—mainly internet speak or text, the use of emoticons, and just generally informal use of language. I found numerous uses of non-standard written English and emoticons. My second data set included some more specific information, not only because the actual data set was larger (25 versus 43 comments). I decided to pay attention to audience as part of online identity creation, specifically how the language of the participants changes depending on their audience. The changes were more localized in the second data set because there were adults and other people from outside the original social group present within the conversation. More importantly, some of the adults present were teachers from the school the girls all attend. The second data set showed the use of zero emoticons, far less uses of non-standard written English, and more formal use of language in general. I focus on how the change in language for a specific audience creates, or helps to create, an online identity for the participants. I would further argue that the adolescents take more risks with different uses of language while they are among their peer group, and part of that risk taking becomes an active role in creating their online identities.
I plan on researching mostly at the Transforming Economic Conditions and Social Relationships tradition. More specifically, Knobel and Lankshear’s article “Digital Literacy and Participation in Online Social Networking Spaces,” and Black and Steinkueler’s article “Literacy in Virtual Worlds” and their idea of affinity spaces. Thomas’ article “Digital Literacies of the Cybergirl” is another important article that I will look at because it looks at how women behave in online spaces and how those spaces can effect their identities. As of now, the last tradition I will focus on is Transforming Reading and Writing, particularly Haas’ article “Young People’s Everyday Literacies” as well as Lam’s “Multiliteracies on Instant Messaging in Negotiating Local, Translocal, and Transnational Affiliations.” For sources outside the classroom, I have located some potentially useful articles within the Journal of Sociolinguistics and American Speech. Most of the research that has been done on this particular subject is both qualitative and quantitative, and I take a similar approach. For instance, I review the specific number of participants in each post, the number of comments, the number of likes, and the specific uses of emoticons; however, I also focus on how that information helps to create an online identity, which is something far less tangible.